You might not know this, particularly if you’re outside of Canada, but Ottawa – the nation’s capital – is very much a blues town in the way that Chicago is. The city is host to the annual Bluesfest, even if that festival has moved away from its blues roots in recent years, and Ottawa even has its own radio station strictly dedicated to the blues genre, believe it or not. I suppose being a government town makes people depressed or something. Anyhow, Drew Nelson is a guitarist who is a veteran of the Ottawa blues scene. Active since the ‘70s, Nelson has been rather quiet in recent years, with his last record being 2006’s 30 Odd Years. Well, that silence has now been broken with his latest offering, The Other Side, which sees Nelson tackle not just traditional blues, but rock, country and even a bit of jazz. It’s quite the mix, but Nelson deftly pulls off the transitions. One thing about Nelson is that he’s a heck of a talent on the guitar: if Brian Wilson thought he was starting fires in the neighbourhood where he was recording Smile just by making music, Nelson pretty much starts infernos every time he touches his instrument’s strings. The guy can shred, particularly at slide guitar, and his voice is somewhat reminiscent of heartland rocker John Hiatt.
Not everything quite congeals on The Other Side. Nelson is at his most successful either on the bluesier numbers or when he’s reaching into rock territory. Country songs, such as “Drifting Away”, get away on him. Alternately, Nelson’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” won’t make you forget the original, and Nelson’s voice is a little sandpapery here. Not that Cohen’s voice isn’t, but everything here seems rather paint by the numbers, prompting listeners to consider hitting the skip button. However, The Other Side has its hidden delights, such as the reggae infused “Stick Around”, which features some electronic percussion in the song’s intro. And the title track, a baroque folk ballad, is quite a delight. Overall, Nelson hits more out of the park that ground balls, and he’s at his best when he lets the guitar do all of the singing for him. It’s not perfect, but The Other Side showcases Nelson’s talents and announces to the world just what it is about Ottawa that keeps the city so honed in the blues traditions. Pick this up if you like some blues with a sense of adventure.